Watchdog Clears Trump Over Protest Melee Ahead of Church Photo Shoot

The Interior Department’s inspector general says there is no evidence that the reason why police brutally cracked down on protesters near the White House last year was so that President Donald Trump could pose for photos nearby with a Bible.

Map of Washington included in an inspector general’s report shows Lafayette Square separating the White House, to the south, from St. John’s Church on the northern side. (Image via Courthouse News)

WASHINGTON (CN) — An inspector general for the Interior Department appointed to his position by former President Donald Trump issued a report Wednesday that exonerates Trump in connection to the use of chemical weapons at a protest last year.

It is undisputed that Trump marched through the park known as Lafayette Square on June 1, shortly after authorities cleared the protesters who had been peacefully demonstrating there. Days earlier, George Floyd had been murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, and Washington was one of countless cities around the world overtaken by protesters in the aftermath. On June 1, standing outside a historic church separated from the White House by Lafayette Square, Trump posed for photos with a Bible as members of his family and his Cabinet looked on.

What the report Wednesday from Inspector General Mark Greenblatt concludes, however, is that federal police forcibly cleared the area of protesters not for Trump’s photo op but so that a contractor could install an “antiscale fence” that protesters would be unable to breach.

“The evidence we reviewed showed that the USPP cleared the park to allow the contractor to safely install the antiscale fencing in response to destruction of property and injury to officers occurring on May 30 and 31,” the 41-page report states. “Further, the evidence showed that the USPP [U.S. Park Police] did not know about the president’s potential movement until mid- to late afternoon on June 1 — hours after it had begun developing its operational plan and the fencing contractor had arrived in the park.”

Trump headed off for the photo op at St. John’s Church shortly after delivering remarks at 7 p.m. — the curfew installed for D.C. by Mayor Muriel Bowser a day earlier. There, the president delivered a thundering warning: Further unrest would prompt him to deploy the U.S. military to any city or state that “refused to take the actions necessary” to quell protests.  

With typical bombast, Trump promised that the National Guard would be called upon to “dominate the streets” and that military forces would “quickly solve the problem” posed by protesters if state governors could not.

While Trump was speaking, however, police were already on horseback in riot gear and wielding clubs in Lafayette Square. Police had already begun moving people violently deploying flash bangs, smoke bombs and pepper balls.

President Donald Trump holds a Bible as he visits outside St. John’s Church across Lafayette Park from the White House on June 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

But the report from Greenblatt says U.S. Park Police had gotten the orders to clear the square for curfew long before anyone knew that Trump planned to give a speech and take photos.

Indeed, Metropolitan Police asked Parks Police to delay their sweep of the square so there would be “clear authority to arrest protesters who failed to comply with the curfew.”

Video of the protest’s dismantling shows individuals hurling water bottles at police who descended on them. Park Police contend protesters not only threw water bottles but bricks and caustic liquids. A Washington Post review of video footage from June 1 indicates no evidence of either bricks or caustic liquids used by protesters during the fray. In his report Wednesday, Greenblatt reported water bottles and eggs were thrown by protesters at police on June 1.

Noxious fumes still hung in the air from pepper spray unleashed by police when Trump, his attorney general and others walked the short distance from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. The procession lasted just 20 minutes.

Video shot by CNN shows then-Attorney General William Barr entering Lafayette Park around 6:10 p.m. Standing behind a group of police in riot gear, he then speaks with a small group of officials including Secret Service and a representative from the U.S. Park Police while gesturing toward St. John’s Church. The Washington Post obtained a radio transmission from June 1 confirming at 6:21 p.m., law enforcement did inquire to each other over which available officers would carry pepper balls as they cleared the square.

A minute later, footage shows Barr leaving.

Greenblatt concluded that Barr’s appearance in the park before the chaos ensued was unrelated to any decision to clear the square. He did find, however, that Barr asked a Park Police commander why the crowd was still on the perimeter.

“When we asked the USPP operations commander about this exchange, he stated he told the Attorney General the area was unsafe and asked him and the other officials to move away from the line of officers,” Greenblatt wrote. “The USPP operations commander told us the Attorney General then asked him why the crowd was still on H Street and said he thought they would be gone by that point. The USPP operations commander told us he advised the Attorney General that they were getting into position to move the crowd. He stated he again advised the Attorney General that the Attorney General was not in a safe area and should move further from the crowd. The USPP operations commander said the Attorney General asked him, ‘Are these people still going to be here when POTUS [President of the United States] comes out?’”

The commander replied: “Are you freaking kidding me?”

Greenblatt wrote in the report that Parks Police and the Secret Service had begun planning to install antiscale fencing at Lafayette Park — and clear any protesters — before 10 a.m. on June 1. Metropolitan Police were briefed about the plan by 11:50 a.m. and by 12:38 p.m., Parks Police and Secret Service confirmed that fencing would arrive later that afternoon, around 2 p.m.

No specific time was given to clear the park, the inspector general found. Rather, Parks Police planned to clear the area “as soon as the fencing and the contractor’s employees arrived and when officers were in place to secure the perimeter.”

“The USPP incident commander told us he would have secured the perimeter that morning if he had had enough officers to do so, but many officers were not reporting for duty until that afternoon because of the long hours they had worked over the past two days,” the report notes.

The Parks Police official said he would not observe Mayor Bower’s curfew because they were a federal entity and curfews had yet to stop unrest in the nights before.

“We don’t work directly for the mayor,” the official added.

Image of antiscale fencing included in an inspector general’s report about the crackdown by U.S. Park Police on a June 1 protest in Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House on one side and St. John’s Church on the other. (Image via Courthouse News)

The fencing contractor arrived to assess the site for fence installation as anticipated at 2 p.m., and it was sometime between 3 and 5 p.m., that Park Police were informed by the Secret Service that Trump may visit the square. A section in Wednesday’s report involving what the U.S. Parks Police acting chief of police told the inspector general about those communications has been redacted.

The Parks Police operations commander, incident commander and the acting chief of the department all told Greenblatt they had no idea Trump would be making a speech in the Rose Garden and were never informed of any plans that he might visit the church that night.

“It was just a, ‘Hey, here he comes.’ And all of a sudden I tum around and there’s the entourage,” one commander told the inspector general.

Approximately 49 Park Police officers were injured in protests in Washington before the June 1 incident. Statues in Lafayette Park were graffitied and a rest room was set on fire in the park as well as in the basement of St. John’s Church on May 31. Some businesses were damaged and others looted.

Greenblatt’s report does not assess whether police used proper force in removing protesters.

Overwhelmingly, protesters were peaceful in Washington on June 1. Anya Colone described in a June 2 interviewed with Courthouse News how she was overcome with tear gas in Lafayette Square.

Colone came to Washington from New York and watched protesters all day pass out masks, hand sanitizer, snacks and water. They chanted and sang. They raised their fists in the air, discussed justice and found mutual comfort.

But when the police started to remove her and others by force, her act of civil disobedience turned into terror.

“I’ve never been so scared,” she said, describing a man she watched get pummeled with rubber bullets to the gut. “Attacking these young people — it’s not OK.”

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